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Keeping learning alive in a socially distanced workplace

To paraphrase Jack Welch former CEO of General Electric, if the rate of change outside the organisation exceeds the rate of change inside the organisation you are in a tricky spot. In my experience it is the rate of learning within an organisation that supports our capacity to change and enables an organisation to adapt and prepare for the future. Lock downs, bubbles and social distancing has had an impact on our usual workplace learning, so what forms of learning have managed the change and where are the gaps?

Formal learning- the planned programmes of vocational and qualification-based learning. An OECD report in March 2021 identified that 8% of all workers were involved in formal learning. Yet in the past two years considerable effort has gone into the pivot from face-to-face, to virtual or blended learning to keep the momentum going. The rate of change may not be optimal, but it is moving in the right direction.

Non-formal learning, when managers, team leaders or others in the workplace set aside time to introduce, coach or teach workplace specific practices, for example introducing a new IT practice, setting up new protocols, systems or schedules. A more significant 41% of workers engage in non-formal learning. There has been a drop of 18% in 2021 due to lock downs. But anecdotally many of us know of good examples where workplaces large and small have managed to push this learning onto Zoom, Teams or other platforms to keep the energy going. Some may even find their new learning platforms preferrable to the former ways of learning.

Informal learning, our everyday learning-by-doing, being on-site and alongside colleagues, observing and absorbing, learning from the role models and examples around us, we pick up skills on the spot. Here we make the real connection between our environment, our skills, access examples from others behaviour and practices and acquire just-in-time learning. A whopping 70% of employees in OECD countries engage in this learning. But lock downs and social distancing have caused a 25% drop in this practice, and in specific practical industries this may be as much as 50%. Learning by doing is a crucial form of skill acquisition, but could it become a casualty of our current environment? Certainly, the OECD report is anticipating a skills gap and need for retraining for practical workplace skills in the future.

It is important to note that not all informal learning is constructive, sometimes it is just affirming what we already know. We can also learn bad habits, take short cuts, and move away from effective practice. Therefore, ensuring that we encourage best practice in learning-by-doing, even as we have to social distance, is more important than ever. While some are working on sophisticated virtual reality to fill this space, many of us need to act now to keep the momentum going and minimise the skill gap for the future.

Some things we can try to keep learning-by-doing alive in our bubble and socially distanced environments:

Create a skill exchange – Again we can take a lesson from Jack Welch, in 1999 aware that technology was crucial for the future of business and that senior leaders were failing to get on board with the new learning, he created the popular Reverse Mentoring programme. Pairing 500 senior and junior employees. “We tipped the organisation upside down”, the youngest and brightest teaching technology to the oldest, perhaps reluctant, and senior employees. It was a learning-by-doing programme that has been successfully replicated in many workplaces. To adapt this idea, create your own skill exchange, look for the pockets of skill and talent within your organisation, and bring people together to learn from each other. They can take people for a virtual walk through their workshops, plant or office to see examples of each other’s work, trial skills together and problem solve together. Build a culture of skill sharing which can grow when we move forward from social distancing.

Peer coaching and action learning groups for leadership, soft skills and problem solving. Connect peers with similar issues, provide a time and place to discuss, explore, and seek solutions to current problems in the workplace. Build a culture of professional conversations that can continue beyond our current circumstances.

Cascade learning, where your staff have attended the formal and non-formal learning experiences, create the opportunity to share their learning. Ensure that it is more than just a Zoom or Teams presentation, encourage them to teach the rest of the team. Then take it a step further, encourage those who have been part of the group to apply the ideas into their practice and return to talk about what they have learned from the process. Create a tipping point between new learning and new practices.

Use ‘think aloud’ processes, i.e the process of actively talking through our own thought processes on a practical job. We often do this spontaneously when working face-to- face, with a little practice it can be easily adapted using digital technology. Get your experienced staff to share examples in practice, uncover their tacit knowledge and explore their decision-making processes. People are often surprised by how much they do know and how much they can share with others.

Make it visual - using go-pro, cell phones or other tools to video short practical activities. This takes a little practice and works well alongside the Think Aloud process. Encourage your team to make their own copies, to share and discuss them, and retain the best examples. If you keep a bank of examples, review and change them regularly to ensure that the material is up-to-date and best practice.

These activities help to fill the gap if learning-by-doing has been put on hold in your organisation, they keep the momentum going and have the potential to create a positive culture of sharing best practice for the future. If you have other ways that you have overcome this challenge and are happy to share your ideas, I would love to hear from you.

Therese La Porte: (


Adult Learning and Covid19: How much informal and non-formal learning are workers missing? OECD 25 March 2021 (

If you are interested in more information in these techniques the NZIM Senior Executive programme Operational Leadership ( looks at practical learning in the workplace. Leading Lean ( explores improving productivity in the workplace and the SkillBOX workshop Leading Different Generations in the workplace ( applies the Reverse Mentoring model.